Korea eyes democratic Myanmar

There’s no doubt that Myanmar is a country in transition. Even its harshest critics admit that many game-changing political reforms have been implemented since the country’s first civilian government took office in April 2011.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party participated in elections in April 2012, restrictions on the media began to be removed, hundreds of political prisoners were freed and travel restrictions eased and, more recently, a slew of cease-fire agreements were brokered with ethnic armed groups that could lead to a lasting peace agreement.

The question on the minds of international observers now is whether the general-cum-civilian president, Thein Sein, can continue to press democratic reforms while at the same time liberalizing the economy.

For that to happen, foreign direct investment is a crucial factor. Since 2011, South Korea has emerged as Myanmar’s sixth-largest investment and trade partner, pouring in $2.1 billion in accumaltive FDI as of the first half of this year alone.

Myanmar’s deputy minister of National Planning and Economic Development came here earlier this month to assure investors that the country is on track with economic and political reforms and also to nurture those burgeoning trade and investment relationships.

“We made a series of reforms that are increasing foreign investment and trade, and are stimulating the economy. Indeed, there are bodies representing their constituencies in the parliament that can solve problems of peoples of their constituencies effectively. We can change from an authoritarian system to a democratic system,” said Deputy Minister of the MNPED Lei Lei Thein in a closed door interview with The Korea Herald and one other media outlet.

Thein led a small delegation here for the Investment and Business Environment Seminar on Myanmar, which was co-organized by the ASEAN-Korea Center, in Seoul on Sept. 2.

Thein rattled off a litany of reforms, such as passing an anticorruption law and revising legislation aimed at attracting foreign investment, and new rules to bring Myanmar’s currency exchange rate in line with the currency’s real international value.

In some ways, Thein herself represents a possible new Myanmar as one of just a handful of women in senior government positions there. Women top the education and social welfare ministries and a half dozen deputy minister positions, she said.

A veteran bureaucrat with nearly 30 years of experience, Thein could also engage in fluent English with the two reporters interviewing her, while flipping through her Samsung tablet to pull up charts, figures and other data. She made a strong case for her country.

In another sign of the country’s opening up to the world ― and the growing South Korea-Myanmar relationship ― she said she bought the device not in wealthy South Korea but in developing Myanmar.

“You know that in previous years (Myanmar) had closed the door (to the outside world). We had many restrictions and barriers up until 2011,” she said.

“The National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, was allowed to enter into the by-elections in April 2012. A national human rights commission has been established. Amnesty was granted to more than 200 political prisoners. During these three years we made many reforms when the new elected government came into office in 2011. And, the government entered into negotiations with the Karen for a cease-fire,” she said.

Myanmar’s central government is in talks with 17 groups, pressing for a formal peace treaty to end decades of fighting by the end of 2015, when the country will attempt its first civilian transfer of power.

For decades, Yangon fought with a byzantine array of armed groups representing various ethnic minorities ― as many 135 tribes and ethnic and linguistic minorities ― including the Shan, Mon and Karen peoples, the latter of whom claim a homeland in the south and southeastern parts of the country bordering Thailand.

The government signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the 17 groups that are currently involved in a peace process with Yangon.

The groups most recently met in June and President Thein Sein has repeatedly indicted he wants a peace treaty completed before Myanmar’s presidential election.

Essentially, the ethnic groups want a federal system, but the former military government saw such local autonomy as tantamount to separatism. Decentralizing power from areas of Myanmar that are home to some of the country’s largest minorities would likely require amending the constitution. Solving these ethnic conflicts could be crucial to Myanmar’s democratic transition.

What is more, extending a share in the country’s economic development could go a long way in ensuring the groups’ stake in Myanmar’s future.

More than 70 percent of FDI goes to the energy sector, for developing the oil and gas industry and power generation.

“Our country is an agricultural country. Some of the investment will go there. In terms of volume, however, the oil and gas sector receives the most FDI,” Thein explained.

“Yes, Naypyidaw is the administrative center of our country, but Yangon and Mandalay are the economic centers, similar to the roles New York and Washington play in the United States.

“We are implementing a 20-year, long-term economic development plan encompassing 2011 to 2031, called the Comprehensive Economic Development Plan.”

Along with the flood of FDI, Myanmar was rewarded this year by ASEAN for embarking on peace and democratization. For the first time since it joined the Southeast Asian regional group 17 years ago, it has taken up the chairmanship of ASEAN.

Thein said Myanmar wants to focus on small and medium-sized enterprises while it is chair of ASEAN.

“We will strengthen regional cooperation on SMEs, because this area is very important for CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam). We need to help them survive after the regional economic area goes into effect next year,” Thein said.

The ASEAN Economic Community 2015 goes into effect on Dec. 31, 2015, when import tariffs will drop to zero.


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